WASHINGTON - With Republicans increasing their majority in the Senate, President Bush is in a stronger position to finally win approval for his long-stalled bill to overhaul national energy policy and even appears within reach of achieving one of his most cherished goals: opening Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.
The energy legislation and Arctic drilling are two of several administration-backed measures that gained new life from Tuesday's elections.
Others include legislation that would curb what Bush calls frivolous lawsuits, including a measure backed by the National Rifle Association to shield gun makers and sellers from lawsuits related to gun violence, and a bill that would make it a federal crime to circumvent parental notification laws by transporting a minor across state lines for an abortion.
Some of those bills passed the House but were blocked in the Senate by Democratic-led filibusters.
But Republicans gained four more seats in the Senate - increasing their number to 55 when the new Congress convenes in January - and will need only five more votes, instead of nine, to overcome filibusters and force votes on legislation.
"The new Senate makeup will likely help movement on energy legislation in the 109th Congress," said Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a Washington-based trade group representing independent oil and natural gas producers.
An energy bill that includes a wide range of measures to promote energy conservation and production passed the House last year but never came to the Senate floor, falling two votes short of overcoming a filibuster.
The bill would require greater use of ethanol, an alternative fuel made from corn - a measure that Republican John Thune pledged to try to deliver to ethanol-producing South Dakota during his successful campaign to replace Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.
Strengthening the grid
The legislation, a priority for the administration, also includes measures designed to strengthen the nation's electric grid and prevent fuel supply shortages and price spikes, such as those that occurred during California's energy crisis in 2000 and 2001.
It's not clear whether the same energy bill would be brought back before the next Congress or whether it would be a new bill, or even a series of bills - for example, one seeking to revive nuclear power, another seeking to promote the development of solar and wind energy.
Some pieces of the energy package have been passed as parts of other legislation, including a federal loan guarantee to spur building of a pipeline to bring natural gas from Alaska to the lower 48 states.
"I don't think it's as easy as they think to pass an energy bill," said Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming program.
"If it were just a Democratic-Republican vote, we would have lost already. But there were a bunch of Republicans who voted with us for a variety of reasons, and I suspect that they will again," Becker said.
Republican Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he would prefer that Congress take another vote on the energy bill during a lame-duck session this month.
But if this Congress doesn't act, he said, he is optimistic that the new Congress will pass a bill.
Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, predicted that Congress would finally send an energy bill to Bush next year - and approve a separate bill authorizing energy exploration in the Arctic refuge.
Also, Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Republican Rep. Richard W. Pombo of California, chairman of the House Resources Committee, said that on the first day of the new Congress, his boss would introduce a bill to allow drilling in the Arctic refuge.
Republicans are looking at again attaching the drilling proposal to a budget measure that needs only a simple majority to pass the Senate.
In 2003, drilling supporters mustered 48 votes, meaning that, with Vice President Dick Cheney casting a tie-breaking vote, they need just two votes to prevail.
Last year, five Democrats joined 43 Republicans in supporting the drilling.
Four newly elected Republicans - Richard Burr of North Carolina, Mel Martinez of Florida, Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Thune - are drilling proponents who will replace anti-drilling Democrats.
Pro-drilling forces are losing retiring Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, whose successor, Democrat Ken Salazar, has come out against the drilling.
In Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana and Oklahoma, the newly elected senators have the same positions on drilling as the retiring senators.
That should leave the pro-drilling forces with a net of three more adherents, for a total of 51.
"Of course, I'm concerned about the Arctic," said Betsy Loyless, vice president for policy for the League of Conservation Voters.